The Nature of Webs

“Now approaching, Kendall/MIT,” the subway train conductor said over the loudspeaker. A throng of sleepy looking young people shuffled toward the doors of the Red Line train, positioning themselves for the start of the next dash of their commute to campus. The doors opened and they spilled out over the station platform. After a pause, two tones sounded. Then the doors lurched closed and the train pulled out of the station, continuing its inbound run.

The subway car was now conspicuously empty. The sudden contrasting silence did not go unnoticed by most of the remaining passengers. For a few seconds they looked in mild bewilderment about the now largely vacant space. The train exited the subway into the morning light and began to make its way up the approach to the Longfellow Bridge over the Charles River. It was then that a young man sitting across from me in a smart wool coat and a plaid scarf looked up from his smartphone and, seeing natural light streaming through the train car windows, jolted to his feet. His smartphone-induced distraction had caused him to miss his stop! He had missed the transition from full train car to empty. He had missed the throng of people moving around him and exiting the train. He had missed the conductor’s announcement and the tones of the doors’ closing.

While this lapse could happen to anyone, on any given day, for a variety of reasons, this particular event lodged itself into my memory. The year was 2008. Smartphones as we know them today were new and not yet ubiquitous. I had first tried out the original model of the iPhone a few months before and had remembered the rush of delight I received as I experienced the ingenious synthesis of its diverse app ecosystem and touch gesture interactions. We all know now that this delight I, and so many others, felt upon first touch was a deliberate design feature, not an accident. Despite this initial seduction, I firmly resisted inviting smartphones into my life. Something about their proximity and their deeply compelling design was troublesome to me. That moment on the Red Line was a confirmation of my concerns.

Now I’m no luddite, I assure you. I’ve been programming computers since 1984, and have built a career keeping up with the latest advances in software development and architecture. But the tools I used went away when I got up from the chair. The web browser lived on the disk drive along with the word processor. I decided when to give it my attention, and it did not reach out to me with “notifications” at any other time. My pocket held coins and keys. Back in 2008, I saw the impossibly slippery slope of an always-on, always-near, always-present web. It would be several more years before I got my first smartphone.

It is the nature of webs to be sticky and to ensnare. Here and now, in 2017, it is clear that the online world is a spider web that ensnares our attention, which is then consumed for profit by its makers. If we so much as glance at it, with one small flicker of our attention, one click, one little spin of the scroll wheel, the spider pounces on us, wrapping us up with its machine intelligence as it spins vomitus amounts of “feed” that it knows our psychology and neurochemistry will find incredibly difficult to tear away from. Notifications and gamification exploit these same psychological and neurochemical access points to ensure that we return to the trough frequently.  Through this hypnotic, viral exchange, the spiders grow wealthy and fat as they hijack our human faculties and feed upon our rapt attention.

The solution is clear. If we wish to reap the benefits of the web without it hijacking our attention, then we must employ an agent to interact with it on our behalf. Such an agent would act as a mediator that a human can safely direct and manage from an insulated distance. This agent would seek the information we need and maintain the social pulse of our networks without putting our attention at risk. Such an agent would not work on behalf of advertisers or data mining engines. Rather, it would work tirelessly for us, and only us. Unlike its human master, this agent would be immune to distraction, as well as to emotional, behavioral, and neurological manipulation. Presence is creating your Personal AI to do just that.

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